by Jason Lief
Numerous times I have been asked, “Have you read that book about Metallica going to church?” (John Van Sloten, The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything[Square Inch, 2010]). Every time I awkwardly respond, “Uh . . . no.” I can’t blame people for asking. I’m a metal fan, after all. I grew up on Metallica. I learned to play guitar listening to Metallica. So of course those who know me would ask the question. I just can’t make myself read the book. Nothing against Mr. Van Sloten; I’m sure he’s a fine writer. It’s just that I’m not sure Metallica going to church is a good idea. I think we are better off just leaving them alone.
This may sound strange coming from someone who teaches at a Kuyperian academic institution with the mantra “every square inch”—stranger yet from someone who teaches theology and youth ministry, including a course called “Engaging Culture.” But in the time I have spent reflecting on the cultural situation of young people in the Western world, I’ve had this epiphany: maybe it’s time we just let them be.
So much of the cultural world inhabited by young people has been institutionalized. From the newly termed “K-16 educational system,” to the parent/ coach-controlled AAU athletic tournaments, to churches’ obsessions with starting new programs to micromanage their “spiritual” (meaning “moral”) lives, very few places remain where young people can step outside the watchful eye of Big Brother. And now we’re insisting on bringing one of the few remaining places they can go—metal music—into the church? I can hear them rolling their eyes.
I have to admit, I wonder about the notion of God speaking through Metallica—or any other genre of popular music, for that matter. The power—and, I would argue, the beauty—of Metallica’s music, and of heavy metal music in general, is that it represents a human response to a specific historical experience. Study the history of metal and you find that it developed in the economically depressed industrial areas of England during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Look at any group of metal heads and you’ll find young people pushing back against what they perceive to be a lack of control, a lack of freedom in the way they want to live their lives. What heavy metal does through the music and theatrics is rupture the cultural space, poking a finger in the panoptic eye, carving out a tiny spot these kids can call their own. I’m not sure this is God speaking through Metallica so much as it is Ulrich and Hetfield (Metallica’s cofounders) speaking to the human condition. The last thing the church needs to do is try to take them to church.
What heavy metal—or, for that matter, rap, country, whatever genre you prefer—does well is open the cultural space for imagination, creativity, and community. Attend any heavy metal concert and you’ll witness a type of communal bond that only popular music can provide. We, the Christian community, are welcome to participate, just not on our own terms. But that’s the problem. We always want to engage the world on our terms. We are obsessed with “outreach,” with bringing the so-called unchurched into the church. Yet the thrust of the Great Commission is outward: the obliteration of distinction between Jew and gentile, the obliteration of distinction between sacred and profane. Maybe being the church means being willing to encounter others on their own terms—not in judgment and “transformation,” but in charity and love.
This past year I spent time working at a school in south Minneapolis. I worked with kids whose cultural world was drastically different than my own, which left me to wonder how I would connect with them. Would they invite me into their communal space? On one of my first days there, I struck up a conversation with a group of young men who were messing around with an acoustic guitar. We began to discuss music, and over time I could sense them becoming comfortable with me. One young man in particular would occasionally seek me out to talk music. I’d ask him about the new bands he was listening to, and he’d rib me about my weak spot for Justin Timberlake (hey, he’s talented!). Interestingly, it was music that opened the door to other conversations about family struggles and to questions about the future. This is where God is present, where God speaks: through our encounters with others.
Does God speak through popular music? I’m not so sure. But I do believe popular music clears the way for us to encounter each other. This is where God speaks. So we should leave Metallica alone and let them do their work. We don’t need to get them to come to church. We don’t need to control or explain everything, or have it all on our terms. Maybe, from time to time, we should heed the advice of Pink Floyd and “leave them kids alone.”